Friday, March 21, 2008

Report from Iten Peace Run

Peter Vigneron is in Kenya for the next few months to work on KIMbia Foundation projects. Here’s his account of the Iten Peace Run, held last Saturday in Kenya’s unofficial running capital.

Our correspondent and some of his new rafikis (friends).A little after 8am I arrived at the soccer field in Iten center, shepherded by Paul Koech and with 30 girls from Silgich Hill Academy following in two matatus. Already I was traveling with a former world champion, and presently I would meet another, then an Olympic gold medalist, then a reigning world champion at 800 meters. I snagged a picture of the man who holds the greatest record in track and field, and—true to form—he made an early exit from the scene. This was the start to my fourth day in Kenya, 74 hours into the trip.

Toby Tanser and Lornah Kiplagat have held a girls race in Iten since 2004. This year’s edition was scheduled for January 5th, but events intervened and the race did not proceed. On February 28, Kenya’s rival politicians signed a power sharing agreement that has brought a nervous peace to the country, and the event, which in normal circumstances promotes education and athletic achievement for young girls, was recast as a peace march and 4k cross country fun run. This year, it featured nearly every prominent Kenyan runner of the last four decades.

Douglas Wakihuri (1987 world marathon champ) and Luke Kibet (2007 world marathon champ) with their country’s flag.When the idea for a peace run was born, Kenyans had made precious few serious gestures toward peace and reconciliation nationwide. In fact there is still a disheartening shortage of such gestures, but the running community is beginning to make its voice heard. “Actions speak louder than words,” Olympic bronze medalist Mike Boit said after the race, “and we have told everyone that we want peace in Kenya.”

The elephant on the field Saturday afternoon was a report published by the International Crisis Group (ICG) February 21 that accused runners of funding and organizing some of the post-election violence in Rift Valley Province. It quoted sources who suggested that Kalenjin runners with military training helped to drive the Kikuyu supporters of Mwai Kibaki out of the Rift after the election, and were thusly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people and the widespread destruction of Kikuyu homes and shops.
These allegations came several weeks after several athletes received SMS text messages threatening violence against runners if they purchased abandoned Kikuyu land. The ICG paper reports that runners involved in the violence had “partly economic” motivations for supporting Kalenjin militias, and the SMS threats were probably intended to deter athletes from buying Kikuyu land at low cost. Moses Tanui, who owns several large commercial buildings in Eldoret, was also harassed by police, whom many Kalenjins say sided with the government against the opposition.
Who needs CoolMax? Tanser recruited nearly 600 girls from local primary schools for the race, and gave each a yellow t-shirt bearing the Shoe4Africa logo and the words “Run for Peace.” Tanser’s organization distributes running shoes to underprivileged Kenyan children, and each girl received a pair of sneakers at the finish line.
Each elite athlete was also asked to don a shirt, and so shortly after 10am, a parade of yellow clad runners—past, present, and future—marched through the small commercial center of Iten. 1988 Olympic silver medalist ’87 world marathon champion Douglas Wakiihuri carried the Kenyan flag at the head of the parade with Luke Kibet, the reigning world marathon champion who was injured in the violence. Wakihuri is Kikuyu and Kibet Kalenjin.
The 31 page ICG report contains only one paragraph on athlete participation in the violence, but that paragraph has attracted worldwide media attention. An article on ForeignPolicy.com noted how disappointing it would be if athlete role models were responsible for or involved in violence. It is a concern that has deeply offended the Kenyan running community, who view themselves as the face Kenya shows to the world.
Well, so much for a blazing kick–some girls queued up 100 meters from the finish.After the march, KIMbia athletes Chris Cheboiboch and Tim Cherigat led the girls through the two-lap 4k course. 14 year old Paskaline Kosgei took an early lead, running alongside Cheboibach for a solid victory over Chelimo Ng’etich and Gladys Cherop, who were paced by Cherigat. Kosgei won a Compaq laptop for her school, and Ng’etich and Cherop took home 12,000 and 8,000 Kenyan Shillings, respectively, or roughly $185 and $125 USD. All but a few girls racing went barefoot, and the scene at the finish was at times both chaotic and comical. Race organizers and staff rushed to hand out shoes but were quickly overwhelmed. At one point the queue for the finish grew to over 100 meters.
The athletes I’ve spoken with are furious that the paragraph implicating runners in the ICG report has been seized upon by the media. “It’s all political,” one told me. “It’s people taking advantage of the situation to tarnish big names in the running community. They see an opportunity and they take it.”
In Iten, business is back to usual. The hundreds of runners who normally train on the town’s famous red dirt roads have returned. KIMbia athletes Cheboiboch, Cherigat, James Kosgei and Mike Jeptoo put in a very good 25k effort on Wednesday, and Charles Kibiwott ran 2:08 at the Seoul International Marathon on Sunday. World Cross County is coming up. The athletes would like the violence, and now the accusations, behind them.

International athletes in attendance, Shoe4Africa Run For Peace:

  • Daniel Komen
  • Janet Jepkosgei (The Eldoret Express)
  • Lornah Kiplagat
  • Yobes Ondieki
  • Joyce Chepchumba
  • Amos Biwot
  • Moses Tanui
  • Luke Kibet
  • Moses Kiptanui
  • John Yuda
  • Paul Koech
  • Mike Boit
  • Douglas Wakihuri
  • Ezekiel Kembio
  • Jephart Kimutei
  • Ben Maiyo
  • Matthew Birir
  • Kimutei Kosgei
  • John Litei
  • Durka Mana
  • Silvia Kibet
  • James Kosgei
  • Rebbie Koech
  • Peter Tanui
  • Christopher Koskei
  • Paul Cherop
  • Ben Kogo
  • Rose Tatamuye
  • Wilson Juma
  • Jonah Birir
  • Luke Kipkosgei
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2 Responses to “Report from Iten Peace Run”

  1. Toby says:

    Thanks for coming, and writing, Peter. the next events are in May, hope to see you there!

  2. Gretchen says:

    Hey Peter!
    You’re doing some great stuff. Good to hear you are doing well. Stay safe!
    Gretchen